A little while ago, I came out as bisexual. The process of coming to grips with my own sexuality took a lot of thinking on my part, and I did a lot of reading on the subject as well as watching YouTube videos of other people who had already come out. Early on in my research, I ran across the notion that sexuality is a spectrum from heterosexual to homosexual (with bisexual being in the middle).
This idea of a spectrum has been studied at some depth already. A sex researcher named Kinsey established a scale from 0–6 to rate people on a spectrum of exclusively heterosexual (0) to exclusively homosexual (6), with bisexual people in between. A later researcher named Klein expanded upon Kinsey’s work with a much more complex system, but one which still focuses on the straight/gay spectrum (although with a great deal more richness).
It strikes me though, that this is hardly the only axis of sexual expression. While various people have suggested this already (Klein, in particular), I haven’t yet run across any research on the subject. On top of that, as I’ve been thinking and reading, I’ve come to prefer thinking about these various axes less as spectrums between two opposing points, but rather as a level of interest in a certain kind of activity. With that approach, the following ranges stand out as being more-or-less independent of one another:
- sexual interest in a different gender
- sexual interest in the same gender
- romantic interest in a different gender
- romantic interest in the same gender
- desire to be the active partner during sex
- desire to be the passive partner during sex
- interest in performing various acts on a partner
- interest in receiving various acts from a partner
- desired frequency of sex
- desired length of a sexual encounter
- strength of preference for monogamous relationships
As long a list as this is, it doesn’t even touch on gender expression, and even then I’m sure there are other axes which haven’t even occurred to me (feel free to comment below if you can think of others). My point, really, is that one can think of most aspects of sexuality as a matter of degree: not a matter of either-or.
I arrived at this concept by observing and reading about lots of different individuals and then working backwards. So, for the purposes of this essay, I think it would be helpful to work forwards again by considering some specific examples.
One might imagine the worst stereotype of a straight 20 year old male, for example. This hypothetical individual has high sexual interest in the opposite gender, no sexual interest in the same gender, low romantic interest in anyone (i.e., a desire to form a permanent bond with another person), high desire to be the active partner during sex, low interest in being the passive partner (and then only for certain acts), and a desire for frequent, but relatively short sexual encounters with many partners.
On the other hand, one could also imagine a married lesbian woman in her 40’s. She may have low (but not zero) sexual interest in men, high sexual interest in women, high romantic interest in women (and none for men), a strong desire to be the passive partner during sex, and a preference for extremely extended (but infrequent) sexual encounters only with her spouse.
Or, just to illustrate that these needn’t be either-or, consider a bisexual woman in her 20’s. She may have moderate sexual interest in both the same and different genders (though slightly more for men), moderate romantic interest in either, alternating desire to be the active or passive partner (depending upon the partner), and a desire for frequent sexual encounters of moderate duration.
One could, naturally, multiply these examples endlessly (e.g., gay men, swingers, asexuals, …). And, for any given example, one could conceive of a person who is the same in all the axes: except the one where they differ completely. Where do you fit on these various ranges? If you’re with someone, where does your partner?
There is, of course, a huge variety of permutations when thinking about sexuality as a set of orthogonal ranges. In fact, I think that’s how real people actually experience their own sexualities. Moreover, I think taking this perspective helps eliminate the excessively nit-picky labeling which has become rampant without denying the truth of any one individual’s experiences. With so many possible “labels” to stuff people in, the entire exercise becomes futile. In the end, we’re all unique in our likes and dislikes, so each person should be judged on their own merits: not which end of what scale they might fall on.